Troy Davis case shows need for eyewitness identification reform

The long struggle to save the life of Georgia death-row inmate Troy Davis ended last night at 11:08 p.m., when Davis -- who maintained his innocence to the very end -- was pronounced dead inside the state's execution chamber following a lethal injection.

Davis was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of off-duty Savannah Police Officer Mark MacPhail in a case that was based solely on eyewitness testimony. But in the two decades since that sentence was handed down, seven of the nine eyewitnesses who identified Davis as the gunman recanted, saying police had coerced their testimony.

This week Stephen Marsh, an attorney for Davis, described for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the troubling nature of the eyewitness testimony that led to the conviction:
Marsh said in a telephone interview ... that the eyewitnesses included an man who initially said he could not recognize the shooter except for the clothes he was wearing; a woman who initially said she could not put a face with the shooter; a woman who said she recognized Davis in the dark from more than 120 feet away; and a man who was looking through his car's tinted windows and said he was only 60 percent sure he could identify Davis.
The paper went on to report that Jennifer Dysart -- an eyewitness identification expert and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York -- planned to testify at Davis' clemency hearing on Monday. However, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles ended the presentation by Davis' side before Dysart was allowed to speak.

A growing body of evidence points to serious problems with eyewitness identification procedures. In fact, mistaken eyewitness testimony is the single biggest contributor to wrongful convictions. Mistaken eyewitnesses have played a role in 75 percent of the 273 DNA exonerations nationwide, according to the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project at Brandeis University. And in 36 percent of those cases, more than one eyewitness made the same mistake.

One of the most dramatic cases of eyewitness misidentification occurred in North Carolina. In 1984, someone broke into the apartment of a college student named Jennifer Thompson and raped her. As the crime took place, Thompson carefully studied the appearance of her assailant and later identified him as Ronald Cotton -- who spent over 10 years of a life sentence in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. Remarkably, Thompson and Cotton have since become friends, co-authored the bestselling memoir Picking Cotton and are now outspoken advocates of reforming eyewitness identification procedures.

There are several problems with the U.S. criminal justice system's traditional approach to eyewitness identification. For one, the lineup administrator usually knows who the suspect is, and research has found that he or she often provides unintentional hints to the eyewitness. In addition, an eyewitness is typically shown multiple individuals or photos simultaneously, which tends to lead to a choice based on who looks most like the perpetrator. And the eyewitness tends to assume that the perpetrator must be in the lineup, which can lead to a selection despite doubts.

The Innocence Project -- a nonprofit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University -- has endorsed a set of procedural reforms to help avoid mistaken identification. They include "double-blind lineups," where neither the administrator nor eyewitness knows who the subject is; instructions to deter the witness from feeling compelled to select someone, such as noting that the suspect may or may not be present; and composing the lineup based on the witness description of the suspect. The project also recommends having the witness state his or her confidence level in the identification and documenting the lineup procedure.

The Innocence Project further advises that combining a "blind" administrator with a sequential lineup in which potential suspects are presented one at a time rather than all at once has been proven to significantly increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.

But to date, only 10 jurisdictions throughout the United States have implemented sequential double-blind procedures -- and only three of those are in the South: the State of North Carolina; the city of Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Virginia Beach, Va.

How differently might the Troy Davis case have ended if Georgia had implemented such common-sense reforms before someone murdered Officer MacPhail? And how many innocent people might be spared imprisonment or death if Georgia and other jurisdictions nationwide adopt them now?